A northern pike plaque sells for $18,700!

A very special auction took place in Cadillac, on Sun., Oct. 3. There was an array of spearing decoys, folk art carvings, duck decoys, and firearms. What drew everyone to the sale, however, was the seventy-seven pieces of Oscar Peterson spearing decoys, plaques, and lures – the greatest number of Peterson’s carvings ever to be sold in a single public auction. All of them had come from the estate of John L. Warner, an insurance executive from Newark, Ohio. Warner and his wife, Christine, had a summer home on north Lake Leelanau where he became an early and passionate collector of Michigan fish decoys during the late 1970s and 1980s.

His collection contained not only examples of Oscar Peterson’s work, but also examples carved by Hans A. Jenner Jr., Jess Ramey, Andrew W. Trombley, Henry Isaac Goulette, Jim Nelson, George J. Aho, Jim Foote, David J. Forton, Andrew J. Downey, Carl Christiansen, Delbert Edwards, John Eddy and others. Provenance came with all of Warner’s collection with many items coming from the Peterson estate. Various pieces of the collection had been featured as part of the ground breaking exhibit, “Hooked on Carving: Oscar Peterson” at the Michigan State University Museum (October 24, 1982 through April 10, 1983). Other pieces were part of “Fishing for Art, an Exhibition of the Implements and Art of Angling” organized in conjunction with the American Museum of Fly Fishing at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (March 17 – April 15, 1984). Several of the pieces were illustrated in Ron Fritz’s seminal work, Michigan’s Master Carver, Oscar W. Peterson, 1887-1951, Aardvark Publications, 1987. (The Fritz book is out of print, so check with your local library).

Peterson, from Cadillac, is considered one of our preeminent American folk art carvers, as well as “Michigan’s Master Carver.” His carvings are some of the most beautiful and innovative pieces of folk art ever produced and all created by a self-taught artist. Oscar “Pelee” Peterson (1887 – 1951) was born in Grayling and moved to Cadillac with his family when he was eight years old. He spent the rest of his life primarily in Cadillac except for several years spent in nearby Jennings. Oscar did many things besides carving during his lifetime. He was a handyman and landscaper during the day along with his brother, George, and was also active as a fishing and hunting guide.

It is not certain when Oscar Peterson began carving, but it was common for many boys to start carving as early as eight or nine years of age and certainly by the time they became adolescents. The best guess is that he started around 1900 and carved throughout his lifetime. His most productive period, at least as far as numbers produced, was his last five or six years when he mainly concentrated on spearing decoys.

Oscar Peterson collectors categorize his carving into five creative periods based on stylistic changes that he made over this fifty-year period of time.

PERIOD I (1900-1919)

These carvings are extremely rare and the most primitive, featuring simple carving techniques and painting styles. The Peterson decoys evolved into what has become known as the “Cadillac” style – a streamlined but somewhat abstract decoy that was painted in a beautiful and exaggerated style.

PERIOD II (1920-1924)

His carvings from this period are also very rare. Peterson’s carving techniques grew more refined during this five-year span, and his painting developed with more attention to detail. These carvings are more easily recognized as Peterson decoys.

PERIOD III (1925-1934)

This ten-year time span was his premier creative period and brought more changes to his painting with brighter, bolder colors. Peterson’s carvings became more detailed and his painting technique continued to evolve as he added blending, feathering and other artistic highlights.

PERIOD IV (1935-1944)

Peterson began to concentrate on carving spearing decoys during this decade, though he continued to carve decorative pieces. His painting style became simpler and his brighter colors began to disappear.

PERIOD V (1945-1951)

The changes continued towards the end of his life when he focused almost solely on spearing decoys as opposed to carving any of his other creations. To make his spearing decoys easier to produce, his carving and painting became simple and uniform with less attention to detail.

Oscar Peterson carved many different forms during his long career. Spearing decoys are the most common item he carved, and they represented the majority of the Warner collection. There were fifty-nine different spearing decoys offered for sale – brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, pike, Muskie, walleye, yellow perch, bass, black and white suckers, three kinds of shiners plus several species of minnows. The earliest Peterson spearing decoy in the auction was a 7.75-inch rainbow trout with painted eyes and an early paddle tail, circa 1910s. (Lot 101) It hammered down at $3,300. All prices quoted include a 10% buyer’s premium.

A five-inch to seven-inch brook trout was the most common decoy species that Oscar carved. A brook trout suspended beneath a bobber was a common Michigan summertime live bait for northern pike during this period, so a carved brook trout decoy was also a popular species beneath the ice. There were five different brook trout decoys offered for sale, and a superbly painted seven-inch brook trout with unpainted brass tack eyes, circa 1930, won the highest bid for a brook trout at $3,410. (Lot 93)

The top selling spearing decoy sold at the auction was a magnificent 6.75-inch northern pike with yellow glass eyes in excellent condition, circa 1930s. (Lot 97) Glass-eyed Petersons of any species or size are extremely rare, and this beautifully rendered pike sold for the top bid of $5,500.

Three full-sized Peterson ducks decoys were offered for sale. One of them was a working wooden black duck in good condition from the 1920s-1930s but with some repairs. (Lot 78) It sold for $357.50. Two extraordinary wood ducks with glass eyes, circa 1920s-1930s in excellent condition, were also offered at auction. (Lots 77 and 78) Both the drake and the hen were superb examples of his remarkable talents as a folk artist, and one local bidder responded by buying the pair of wood ducks for a total of $8,800.

Peterson also carved and sold wood fishing lures during the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Four of his hand painted “Yellow Jacket” lures and an unfinished “Yellow Jacket” body were up for auction. On April 26, 1926, he filed for a patent for an artificial fishing lure resembling an insect, which was granted on May 3, 1927 (patent #1627455). The lure, designed as a diving bait whether trolled or cast, had through-wire construction plus an internal belly weight. The one style that has turned up the most is called the “Yellow Jacket” because of the way he painted the lure. All known examples of these hand-carved lures are extremely rare, as the patented lure never went into production due to a lack of funding. The four Peterson Yellow Jacket lures sold individually for $1,210 to $2,420. (Lots 71, 72, 73 and 74)

Oscar Peterson also carved pieces that were purely decorative, and six of his rare miniatures, all dating from the 1930’s, were sold during the sale. These included decoratives such as a tiny 3.25-inch alligator, a 3-inch turtle, a 5.25-inch pike, a 5.75-inch mallard drake duck decoy, and a 6-inch miniature boat with carved and painted pike and brook trout lying in the bottom of the boat.

My favorite Peterson miniature was a 12.5-inch pincushion canoe with a catch of four relief carved and painted fish lying on one end of the deck, which included a wonderfully fashioned pike, a walleye, a perch and a sunfish. There was an oval piece of padded mohair set into the wood at the other end of the canoe, which served as a pincushion. (Lot 65) This one of a kind creation sold for $9,900!

Peterson carved a wide array of other decoratives during the 1930s and early 1940s, which also included plaques. Most of the plaques were carved to sell to the tourist trade, while some were given to relatives as gifts. Others were presented to bait shop and hardware store owners who sold his spearing decoys. It has been suggested that the size of the plaque given to the storeowner reflected just how many decoys the store moved – the more decoys sold, the larger the plaque.

There were four different plaques in the Warner collection – a bluegill, a brook trout, a rainbow trout, and an extraordinary 22.75-inch wide northern pike plaque that sold for $18,700, the top Peterson item in the auction. (Lot 70)

Peterson signed the pike plaque in his own unique style -a copper trap tag was nailed to the bottom edge and hand stamped: “Oscar Peterson 223 E. North St. Cadillac, Mich.” All four plaques had glass eyes and were painted in a highly detailed style, especially the pike. The first three plaques dated from the 1940s, while the northern pike was carved about 1935.

Dennis Kubesh, President of Century Asset Management, Inc. of Maple City conducted the well-attended and well-run auction. Many collectors were in attendance, as well as interested people who had come simply to have the chance to see so many pieces of Peterson’s extraordinary folk art. Bidding from the floor, as well as over the telephone, was aggressive and several world records were set. Dennis Kubesh can be contacted at 231-228-6667 and his website is www.centuryassets.com.

I would like to thank Gary L. Miller, from Williamsburg for the help he gave me in researching the background information for this article. Gary is the foremost historian of Michigan fish decoys, and he was engaged by the auction company to research provenance for the Warner collection. He also photographed the collection and wrote the auction catalog descriptions. All of the beautiful photographs in my article this month are courtesy of Gary. A complete set of photographs for the entire Warner collection are available through his website at http://web.mac.com/garylmiller.

Feel free to contact me at antiquefishing@comcast.net